I was annoyed last year when Alejandro G. Inarritu’s BIRDMAN beat BOYHOOD for both best director and best picture at the Oscars, but I think I’ll be even more upset if his latest feature, THE REVENANT, wins neither of those. The film, based on a true story, stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Hugh Glass, a navigator mauled by a bear, and Tom Hardy as John Fitzgerald, a fur trapper on the same expedition. Fitzgerald is assigned to make sure Glass dies in peace and receives a proper burial, but under the threat of violent Native Americans and the promise of money, he instead kills Glass’s son and leaves him for dead, prompting Glass to find the strength to crawl back to civilization and wreak vengeance.
The movie has its fans and critics, with most of the acclaim centering on the amazing cinematography and Leo’s performance, and the long run time, unnecessary scenes, and lack of subtlety frequently cited as detracting from the experience.
It’s tough to argue with the last point: Inarritu is not known for being understated. BIRDMAN repeatedly hammers the viewer with its themes and its thoughts on movies and art and superhero flicks. But in THE REVENANT it seems to mirror Glass’s single mindedness: kill Fitzgerald. Little else matters.
Going along with this, the movie challenges the audience the same way nature challenges Glass. Though the shots of mountains and forests, plains and rivers are beautiful, at times it feels like for every breathtaking scene there is a bit of violence to even it out. There are also dream sequences, usually populated by memories of Glass’s dead Native American wife and his son. Some have decried these scenes as self-indulgent, but, other than one featuring a pile of buffalo skulls, none are out of place or ruin the pacing; instead, they offer a view into the life and thoughts of the quiet Glass. Couple all this with long stretches that are just Leo wordlessly crawling and surviving, and the end result is a long movie where structure embodies theme.
Clearly, THE REVENANT is not for everyone. Those expecting the dark comedy and banter of BIRDMAN will be disappointed, and those expecting a romp with the dreamy Leo will spend a lot of the run time covering their eyes. But for those who can stomach the gore and the long run time, THE REVENANT should not be missed. Looking at Oscar odds, it’s likely I’ll come away disappointed this year as well, but at least it looks like the Leo meme will end this year.
In closing, I’ll offer an interesting fan theory that’s been making the rounds: the revenant of the title (definition: someone who comes back from the dead) is not Glass, but his wife, who haunts him throughout his journey back to civilization. Some point out how the nonfiction book the movie is based on is also entitled THE REVENANT and features no such wife figure, but then in real life Glass neither had a son nor got his revenge, so there is no reason why the film can’t take liberties and have the title refer to someone else. At the very least, this theory puts the ending (which I won’t spoil here) in a new light.